The beginning of January brings a new year, and, for anyone involved in the University, a new semester. And, with that, after the relaxed, snack-filled and beverage-saturated days of the holidays, many a lament about the return to a more frantic pace and the need to ramp up for new students. My colleagues and I are spending the first week or two of January putting our syllabi together, readying ourselves for that first day, when we meet relative strangers and are responsible for connecting with them deeply and building a community of inquiry together.
In preparation for that anticipated first day of class, most of us will be updating our syllabi not only with new material—the latest journal articles in Cinema Studies or Sociolinguistics or History of X—but also with new language to talk about that material. Let’s face it (boomer) without a little updating in how we talk about history, sociology, linguistics, education, and ourselves, there may be no lesson at all. We may be stopped in our tracks on that first day of class in what I call a “citizen sociolinguistic arrest.”
What is a citizen sociolinguistic arrest? It’s very much like an ordinary citizen’s arrest—one citizen calling another out for violating the law—only in the case of a sociolinguistic arrest, the citizen calls out the other for a violation of their language. You have probably witnessed or even participated in at least one citizen sociolinguistic arrest over the holidays. Maybe your sister referred to her niece as a “freshman” in college, and she was reminded that “we call them first years now.” Or your grandmother referred to participants in the Hong Kong protests as “Orientals” and someone gently explained that English-speaking people generally now use the term “Asian” instead.
But the holidays are over now and we’re working on our syllabi. After leaving our family gatherings, some may be thinking: Can’t we move on and just do our work? No. These citizen sociolinguistic arrests are likely to happen in our classes this semester too. Professors may begin that first session with introductions. And these may include mention of preferred pronouns. Even if we don’t mention our own, or include a note about our own pronouns in the syllabus, we may be seen as making a choice deliberately not to honor non-binary or non-cis gendered individuals. As soon as one student introduces themselves with their own preferred pronouns, the choice may become a topic of conversation.
Now readers may be thinking: Fine, we can talk about pronouns on the first day. But what about the content of the course—can we teach within our areas of expertise without being arrested for the way we talk about our specialty? No. There are plenty of opportunities to critique content-specific language there too, and lately, I’ve heard some fascinating content specific accounts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests.
In a photography class, for example, one professor, preparing his lectures on Diane Arbus, realized that his descriptions of Arbus’ photos needed updating. Last year students had citizen sociolinguistically arrested him for his use of the word “transvestite” to describe Arbus’ well-known photographic subjects. Society has changed regarding trans, non-cis people and our language has along with it. Should we still use the word “transvestite” since it is the one Arbus used? That’s an open question. Or is it? In my own introductory ethnography class, we routinely read Hortense Powdermaker’s account of race relations in Mississippi. Should we use “negro” now, because it was the word she was using in her time? In that case, the question seems less open. But the discussion can be important.
Time clearly changes our relationship to these words, and some of us take longer to catch up. Growing up in different parts of the world also affects the way we use the language to describe our specialties: Another friend of mine, a history professor, realized that the term “world power” could also lead to a citizen sociolinguistic arrest: Referring to Portugal as being one of the great “world powers” at one time, led to a long discussion of many Westerner’s myopic sense of the word “world.”
Each of these citizen sociolinguistic arrests—those that happen with our friends and relatives over the holidays and those that happen in our classrooms and on our syllabi—have the potential to spark important conversations about language, and, inevitably, about why we choose one word or another, and how our different personal histories led us to these choices of words.
There will never be permanently “correct” ways of talking about any of these issues. We will always be subject to critique, and when being critiqued, humility and open-mindedness usually serve us well. These discussions of language—across generations, specialties, gender, and many other communities, can be fascinating. Everyone can learn from them. And as we do so together, we can build that coveted community of inquiry and genuine curiosity within our classroom. So, just as we always need to update our syllabi, we might also need to update the way we talk about it–but then let’s keep the conversation going!
Have you been the subject of these sorts of citizen sociolinguistic arrests in your classrooms, your family dinner table, or elsewhere? Please share in the comments below and let’s keep talking…